Anne Clifford Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Anne Clifford 1590-1676

English memoirist, biographer, and diarist.

Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, Dorset, and Montgomery was one of the most renowned noblewomen of the Stuart era. She is best known for her legal struggle to win the baronial titles and estates in Westmorland and Yorkshire left by her father, which she considered her due despite her gender. The diaries she kept record her unsettled domestic life and are some of the few early-seventeenth-century diaries written by a woman. Clifford also left extensive biographical records of herself and her family, which offer insights into the public and private lives of upper-class English families of her day. From her writings, readers learn of Clifford's troubled marriages, her unyielding personality, her success in winning her inheritance and then managing and restoring her family estates, and her broad reading in literature, philosophy, and religion. From the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries Clifford's work was of interest mostly to historians, but in the later part of the twentieth century scholars began to look at her diaries as early examples of women's autobiography. Critics examining Clifford's work have discussed the relationship between writing and resistance in her works, her attitude to patriarchy, the spontaneity of expression she shows in her diaries, and the female subject-position from which she viewed history.

Biographical Information

Clifford was born on 30 January 1590 at Skipton Castle in Craven, Yorkshire to George Clifford, third Earl of Cumberland, and Margaret Russell. Many members of the Clifford family were important figures in the court of Elizabeth I, and George Clifford was a particular favorite of the queen. Clifford's childhood was divided between a landscape of feudal castles in the north and the cultural life of Elizabeth's court in the south. She was educated by tutors, including the poet Samuel Daniel. Her father prohibited her from learning classical languages, but she read widely in English. Her first memoir, written in 1603, records her interest in literature as well as the daily activities of her family and social circle. Clifford's parents had a troubled marriage, and her father was often absent; he eventually left his wife and child and took up residence with his mistress. When he died in 1605 he left virtually all of his large estate to his brother, which greatly upset Clifford and her mother. They made it their mission to regain Clifford's rightful inheritance.

In 1609 Clifford married Richard Sackville, third Earl of Dorset. Clifford and Sackville seem to have had a passionate relationship for a time, but it was soured by his extravagance, possible homosexuality, and the fact that he was obstructive to her claim for her inheritance. They had five children, only two of whom survived past infancy. Sackville died in 1624, and Clifford remarried in 1630. Her second husband, Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who had been one of William Shakespeare's patrons, supported Clifford's claim to her family estates. However, this marriage was also unhappy, and the couple separated after four and a half years.

When Clifford's uncle, to whom her father had bequeathed his northern estates, died in 1641, the properties went to his son, Clifford's cousin. He died two years later, and in 1643, with the failure of the male line, the properties reverted to Clifford. However, with the Civil War raging, it was 1649 before she returned to her properties. At sixty, Clifford began rebuilding the churches and castles of the family estates, restoring them to their former glory. She also built and restored almshouses and traveled around her vast estates, trying to bring economic prosperity to the area under her control by using local craftsmen and buying from local merchants whenever she could. She had a reputation among the people of the region as a uncompromising but generous woman. During the last twenty-five years of her life Clifford also organized, wrote, and rewrote documents chronicling the history of her family and assembling, with the help of secretaries, The Great Books of The Clifford Family. She died on 22 March 1676, at the age of 86, at Brougham Castle, her father's birthplace.

Major Works

None of the works that Clifford wrote were published during her lifetime. All her writings are of a private nature, and were not intended for a wide audience. Clifford wrote in various forms, producing memoirs, diaries, and an autobiography, although some scholars refer to all her works as “diaries.” Clifford's most famous writings are in fact her actual diaries, which survive for the years 1616, 1617, 1619, and 1676. She also wrote annual summaries, or “chronicles”; those that remain are for the year 1603 and for the period from 1650 to 1675. Clifford also wrote an autobiography, A Summary of the Records and a true memorial of the life of me the Lady Anne Clifford (1653), as well as biographies of her parents. The later chronicles, autobiography, and biographies are preserved in The Great Books of the Clifford Family (c. 1676), which also contains genealogies of her family dating back to the eleventh century. Clifford compiled these documents for her family, and several scribal copies were made and given away during her lifetime. Her works first appeared in published form in the twentieth century, beginning with J. P. Gilson's edition of Lives of Lady Anne Clifford Countess of Dorset, Pembroke and Montgomery (1590-1676) and of Her Parents, Summarized by Herself in 1916 and followed by her descendant Victoria Sackville-West's The Diary of the Lady Anne Clifford in 1923. Other critical editions of the diaries have since appeared.

In all her works, Clifford chronicles the details of her life, ranging from her domestic activities to her legal battles and her perceptions of court politics. All her writings are essentially autobiographical in nature, and they reveal an exceptional woman who saw herself in terms very different from those that society imposed upon women of her time. Not only was she insistent that she was entitled to her father's properties, she rejected traditional gender stereotypes and roles. Clifford does, however, seem to endorse patriarchal class privilege, and rather than champion the possibilities for women of all social backgrounds, she sees no problem in using her family background and rank as a means to empower herself and to further her personal ambitions.

Critical Reception

When she died in 1676, Clifford had a reputation in the areas surrounding her estates as a generous but sometimes abrasive woman of indefatigable spirit. The Reverend Edward Rainbow, in his eulogy for Clifford published in 1677, praised the “great lady” for her wisdom and generosity. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Clifford received some attention from regional historians and memoirists who were interested in the lives of exceptional women. In 1903 she was featured in Eliza Frances Pollard's historical romance The Last of the Cliffords. Literary critics showed no interest in her work in the first half of the twentieth century, but Virginia Woolf in her essay “Donne after three Centuries” did refer to Clifford as one of the early readers of good English books.

In the second half of the twentieth century, critics interested in women's autobiographical writing began to pay attention to Clifford's representation of herself in her diaries and memoirs. These critics have noted Clifford's emphasis on aristocratic privilege and genealogy even as she overturned expectations of gender. They have also examined Clifford's character as revealed in her writings, considered her work as an alternate historiography to those offered by male writers, and discussed her stance as female subject writing about herself. Editions of Clifford's 1603 memoir and her autobiography have yet to be published, so there remains a great deal to be learned about this powerful figure and about seventeenth-century England as seen from a woman's point of view.